An Anatomy of Hate Speech

April 2019 Pulse

On 19 March 2019, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam disclosed that there are plans to conduct a ‘proper debate’ in Parliament on issues such as race, religion and hate speech. This announcement came in the wake of the horrific shootings in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, which claimed the lives of 50 Muslims. A 28-year-old Australian man, whom media describe as a white supremacist and a member of the ‘Alt-right’, is responsible for the brutal massacres.

Minister Shanmugam states that tough laws must be put in place to tackle and curb hate speech, but rightly emphasises that this must be the work of everyone in society. ‘So, we have been (actively working on), and we have to continue to actively work on, bringing people together. Without that, it will not work. Who is the we? It is all of you. Every community, every group, every religious leader and, of course, the Government. All working together to achieve this.’

Hate speech, of course, is not a new phenomenon. Throughout history, hate speech – in one form or another – has been used as a tool to legitimise the persecution, discrimination, hatred and murder of select groups of people. Hate speech has been employed especially in war and in times of conflict and unrest.

However, with the advent of the digital media, hate speech can be effectively disseminated and spread to large swathes of the population. Even more insidious is the fact that because digital media has a wide catchment area, hate speech, which is ordinarily reckoned as extreme by most, gets the appearance of being universal. Because of its reach, digital media can ‘normalise’ hate speech and thus extend its damage.

But what is hate speech? On the surface, the answer to this question seems pretty obvious. But the fact is that hate speech is notoriously difficult to define, making legislation against it difficult to implement.

Several regional and international bodies have attempted to provide a comprehensive definition of hate speech. For example, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe defines hate speech as all forms of expression which ‘incite racial hatred, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and all forms of intolerance, since they undermine democratic society, cultural cohesion and pluralism’ (Recommendation No. R(97)20).

According to the Report by the Equality and Anti-Discrimination Ombud of Norway, the Norwegian Criminal Code § 135 describes hate speech as speech that threatens or insult someone, or speech that incites hatred, persecution or contempt for someone because of their: (1) national or ethnic origin (including skin colour), or (2) religion or belief, or (3) sexual orientation, or (4) disability.

The Report elaborates that regardless of its motivating reason, hate speech has many common denominators. ‘It is often built on negative stereo-types, prejudice and stigmas, and it effects both individual and group dignity and reputation in society.’ Those who engage in hate speech often use exclusionary rhetoric to play up unfounded fear or contempt for a particular group.

The most extreme types of hate speech are those that would incite violence or hate crime against the group that is despised or discriminated against. ‘In its most extreme form,’ the Report states, ‘hate speech comes in the form of threats, glorification of violence, incitement to violence, death threat rhetoric – and in some cases in combination with violence and murder, i.e., hate crime.’

The many harmful effects of hate speech have also been carefully documented and discussed. Hate speech, which denigrates a targeted group (e.g., Muslims or Jews), also encourages the victimisation of that group. This generates deep anxieties and worries among members of the targeted group, which usually forms the minority of the population. Researchers have also found that hate speech has a contagious effect, and often results in even more hate speech.

Hate speech is an affront to democracy. This is because the people who are victims of prejudice and hate often avoid speaking out for fear of backlash and further harassment. And, in a multi-racial and multi-religious society like Singapore, the polarising effect of hate speech will jeopardise the social cohesion that we have worked so hard to foster.

Christians who are called to love not only their neighbours (Mark 12:31), but also enemies (Matthew 5:44) must of course reject the practice of hate speech because it not only demonises the other, but it also unfairly and damagingly tars the whole group with the same brush. Hate speech therefore violates the dignity of the other and subjects him to unfounded prejudice and unjust discrimination. In other words, hate speech dehumanises its victims.

While hate speech must be roundly rejected as a harmful and pathological way of treating the other, what constitutes hate speech is, as I have alluded to above, difficult to ascertain and identify. Although the definitions cited above may look straightforward and compelling at first glance, closer examination will immediately show that this is not in fact the case.

For example, according to the Norwegian Criminal Code, hate speech is speech that threatens or insult someone, or speech that incites hatred. Barring very extreme cases, what is ‘threatening’ or ‘insulting’ is in fact very subjective and mostly debatable. The definition offered by the Council of Europe that hate speech is that speech which incites racial hatred, xenophobia and intolerance is similarly problematic. This is because speech that is deemed to be inciting such attitudes is quite often subjected to a variety of interpretation. In addition, the context in which such speech is made can clarify as well as obfuscate the matter.

In their paper published by the Icelandic Human Rights Centre, Jóna Aðalheiður Pálmadóttir and Iuliana Kalenikova notes that ‘Hate speech is a complicated concept and there is no internationally accepted definition or understanding of it.’ ‘[A]lthough many countries have passed legislation prohibiting hate speech,’ they add, ‘what is defined as hate speech varies significantly between countries and regions.’

There are those that define hate speech in the narrowest way possible in order not to impose undue restrictions to the freedom of expression. For example, the free speech advocacy group ARTICLE 19 while eschewing hate speech believes that ‘offence should never be a basis for restricting expression, even if it is discriminatory …’ Furthermore, it maintains that direct blasphemy of a particular religion or insulting the religious feelings of a particular faith community should not be considered as ‘hate speech’. For this group, the only kind of speech that must be deemed unlawful is speech that incites violence on a particular individual and group.

But the lack of consensus on what hate speech entails has a more sinister consequence. It allows extremist groups to use the rhetoric of hate speech to silence all forms of criticism or challenges to their ideologies and agendas.

In an article published in this space entitled, ‘Islamophobia Phobia’ (March 2017), I cited the case of the sexual abuse of at least 1,400 children in the South Yorkshire town of Rotherham by Pakistani gangs from 1997 to 2013. The official inquiry revealed that although the police, city authorities and child protection agencies knew what was happening, they chose not to do anything about it because they were afraid of being accused of ‘racism’ and ‘Islamophobia’.

In the hands of extremists ‘hate speech’ can become a powerful political tool to conceal the truth by preventing it from being told. Even appropriate and legitimate public opprobrium or censure of the behavior or agenda of a particular group can be labeled as ‘hate speech’ and condemned as racist, intolerant, or bigoted by that group. Hate speech can force the public to adopt a form of self-censorship (a self-imposed gagging order) that can be detrimental to the security of our society and its members.

Laws against hate speech, which are meant to protect the dignity of certain members of society (especially those belonging to a minority group), may be used by unscrupulous extremists in a way that not only goes against public interest, but also puts the larger society at risk.



Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.